email icon Email this citation


Return of the Method: Foreign Policy ‘At the Movies ’ II

Lynn M. Kuzma

International Studies Association
41st Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
March 14-18, 2000


This paper is linked to the paper presented by Patrick J. Haney entitled “And....Action! Leaning About US Foreign Policy on Film.” I would like to thank Pat for his inspiration and help in introducing this exciting method to my students at the University of Southern Maine. Also, I wish to acknowledge the contribution of my students who took this experimental class in the summer of 1999 and eagerly offered suggestions on ways of improving the class as well as encouragement along the way




Last spring I was faced with a dilemma. My department Chair asked me to offer an upper-level Political Science class during the Summer Session. This was a tricky task given the Dean’s policy that any class not attracting at least twelve students would be cancelled. Considering the pool of students who had the prerequisites and would be interested in taking an upper-level summer class, I was dubious of my ability to attract enough students. What class could I offer that would guarantee me “numbers” during the Summer Session? Fortunately, at that time, I was in the midst of editing Patrick Haney’s contribution to my co-edited book entitled “Learning about Foreign Policy ‘At the Movies. ’” In his chapter, Haney reports on a Foreign Policy course he offered in the summer of 1998 which used movies as “primary texts” to create an active classroom learning environment. With his inspiration and guidance, I eagerly constructed and then offered a “Foreign Policy ‘At the Movies ’” class of my own. The following paper discusses my experience applying Haney’s class format to a summer course at the University of Southern Maine.


Course Design

Setting and Parameters

Haney’s 1998 summer experimental class was designed to attract non-political science students who would then hopefully develop an interest in politics. Thus, his introductory-level course was constructed as a 2-credit hour class graded as “credit/no credit.” It met for 2 hours and 15 minutes twice a week for 6 weeks. I was faced with the dilemma of designing a class for a very different audience with a different meeting schedule. Those signing up for my class were students with an interest in politics who needed an upper-level Political Science class to fulfill a major or minor requirement. Consequently, the class had to be a 3-credit hour graded course. I taught in the “short-term session” which is affectionately called the “quickie” by the students. During this time, classes meet 3 days a week for 3 hours for 3 weeks . The Faculty, not so affectionately, call this session the “triple bypass” — they have 9, very long classes to teach back-to-back. The short session seemed an ideal testing ground for a Foreign Policy class that used movies as texts. Given the extended class period, movies could easily be shown in each class meeting with enough time for discussion. Students also would be drawn to the course because it would not be as “painful” as sitting in a lecture-oriented class for 3 hour blocks of time.

Seventeen students spent the month of July watching movies and learning about foreign policy. The University of Southern Maine has a large non-traditional student body. This produced a very age diverse class; a third of the students were middle-aged. I was surprised to find that a third of the class were also transfer students who came home to “Vacationland” for the summer and wanted to take a course that would transfer to their home institutions.

The teaching method employed in Haney’s class, as well as my own, was a type of case teaching using “non-cases.” As Cusimono states, “Case teaching is a marriage of a particular kind of text - a carefully crafted narrative - with a particular classroom approach - active questioning techniques that encourage students to inhabit that story.” In both our classes, movies became the “non-tradition” case medium through which the narrative was delivered. Thus, it was crucial that students attended and participated in class discussion. Participation counted for 20% of their grade. Each student was also required to write four papers. In each paper, students were asked to apply the political concepts they were learning from the readings and lectures to the movies they were watching. Papers were sent to the instructor electronically as e-mail attachments. Students were able to attach images and web links to their papers. A tool in Microsoft Word called “Track Changes” was used to edit student work and allowed the instructor to embed comments in the text. (Those who have not used this tool before will be impressed with its ability to differentiate between the instructor’s comments and the original student work.) As soon as papers were graded they were immediately sent back to the students electronically.

Learning Goals

As in Haney’s class, my course incorporated procedural and conceptual learning goals. One of my primary goals is to help students enhance their critical thinking, evaluation, and communication skills. As stated earlier, the case teaching method was primarily employed to facilitate discussion of the readings and the movies and further this teaching goal. This method contends that students learn effectively through active engagement in real world problem solving, especially if the perspectives of central figure(s) involved in an event are presented. The idea is that interactive analysis stimulates vivid recall and grounds abstract concepts in the specifics of real situations. Using this method, learning, as Haney notes, is “fun and accessible.” These are important qualities to cultivate in a successful summer class.

The conceptual learning goals for the course were many. First, the class would introduce students to the history of US foreign policy during and after the Cold War. After this historical introduction, the syllabus would proceed with an analysis of primary institutions and actors that influence the formation of US foreign policy (President, Congress, State Department, Department of Defense, Intelligence Community, Media, and Public Opinion). The class would finish with a survey of enduring foreign policy issues.

Movies and Readings

Given that we had similar learning objectives, Haney and I developed comparable course outlines. Both classes used the Annual Editions: American Foreign Policy reader, a collection of short essays from various authors, to augment class themes. In my class, the students were required to read an additional text. Since this was an upper-level course, I assigned the same primary text that students read in my traditional Foreign Policy course.

The main challenge of designing the summer Foreign Policy class was linking class readings with movies whose narratives illuminated the course content or demonstrated an abstract foreign policy concept. When deciding which movies to show I used the same decision making criteria that informs my inclusion of traditional cases in my regular Foreign Policy class. Namely, what theme, concept or process do I want to illuminate and how good a job does this “case” do that? In this instance, “non-case” cases (movies) would be substituted for traditional cases. The themes, concepts, movies, and class readings are listed below.

Theme #1 The Cold War

To enhance their textbook readings on the Cold War, students watched the Bill Moyer documentary entitled Post War Hopes , Cold War Fears (1988; 58m ). This documentary provided a view of the lives of Americans at the end of World War II and the rise of the US as a global power. It also depicted the chilling of the United States-Soviet Union relationship that led to the beginning of the Cold War. Students experienced how, within a few years, Americans, who were convinced during WWII that the Soviets were our friends, were now being shown that they were the ultimate enemy.

To demonstrate the extent of fear communism produced within the United States, I paired an anti-Communist propaganda piece produced by the Department of Defense entitled Red Nightmare (1962; 30m, bw) with the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956; 80m) movie. In Red Nightmare the cast of Dragnet is used to demonstrate the terrible life in store for Americans should the dreaded Communists ever succeed in taking over the United States. Invasion is a psychological science fiction thriller that cautions against the insidious spread of Communism. Both movies stressed that vigilance against Communism and support for American values would keep America strong and free.

Theme #2 Post Cold War

To explain the beginning of the end of the Cold War, the student’s readings focused on the reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union, paying particular attention to Gorbachev’s reforms and the continuing mistrust of Soviet motives by American Cold Warriors. Students were also assigned readings by various authors who debated the appropriate US role in a New World order.

The movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991; 109m) is the story of another Cold Warrior, Captain James T. Kirk, and his dealings with the Klingons. The movie begins with the collapse of the Klingon Empire due to economic shortcomings and the destruction of a major power source. This movie emulated the textbook’s analysis of the Soviet downfall so closely that during class discussion many students kept slipping and using the word Klingon Empire when they meant Soviet Union and vice-versa.

Theme #3 Foreign Policy Institutions

After surveying the Cold War and Post Cold War foreign policy environments, we began our survey of the institutions that influence the making of US foreign policy with the Presidency. Supplementing the readings, students watched the movie Nixon (1995;190m) which chronicles the political life of one our country’s most controversial presidents. This movie is an excellent case study of a president and demonstrates how personality factors can influence the formation of US foreign policy. It also shows the President’s powers and limitations.

We continued the exploration of foreign policy institutions by readings focusing on the changing nature of intelligence work and security issues faced by the Department of Defense. Initially we were scheduled to watch Enemy of the State (1998; 130m) a movie about the abuses of the National Security Agency. But, since so many students had just watched the film in the theaters, they voted to watch the movie The Manchurian Candidate (1962; 126, b/w) which is a classic conspiracy/political assassination film starring Frank Sinatra. It focuses on the intelligence community within the Department of Defense.

The State Department and Congress where covered next. Readings on the Senate and the State Department supplemented the text’s coverage of these institutions. The movie The Ugly American (1963;120m ) depicted Marlon Brando as an unqualified ambassador to the fictional Asian country of Sarkan (read Vietnam). This movie not only does a nice job at illustrating the workings of an embassy staff, but also shows the difficulty Americans had differentiating between nationalist movements and communist movements during the 1960s and 1970s.

No review of the foreign policy institutions would be complete without an examination of the interactions of the various institutions. To supplement readings on the advisory system and the decision to expand NATO, students were brought inside the decision-making process during those historic thirteen days in October as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded in the exacting docu-drama Missiles of October (1974; 150m). Crisis decision making, bureaucratic and organizational politics, and group think” were course concepts brought to life in the film.

Theme #4 Outside Influences

One of the topics that students were most interested in covering was the Media’s affect on foreign policy. I coupled readings on the influence of public opinion and the media on foreign policy with a Canadian documentary on Noam Chomsky’s life and thoughts as an outspoken critic of the press and US foreign policy entitled Manufacturing Consent (1993;160m). We watched “Part One” that focused on a critique of The New York Times as a corporate controlled entity with a specific bias that influences “all the news that’s fit to print.” Chomsky argues that American mass media serve as a form of “thought control in a democratic society,” with major news organizations systematically bending the truth to support the status quo. Chomsky’s comparison of the Times coverage of the genocide in Cambodia, during the 1980s, with its lack of coverage of genocide in East Timor during the same time period proved fortuitous. Within the week, Indonesia’s occupation and destruction of East Timor was widely covered in international news sources.

Theme #5 Functional Policy Problems

The next section of the class reviewed functional policy problems with a focus on nuclear security. The new arms race, arms reductions, and nuclear proliferation were reading topics. We watched the documentary Atomic Café (1982; 92m) which is a chillingly compilation of newsreels and government films of the 1940’s and 1950’s that show America’s preoccupation with the A-bomb. The black comedy, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964; 93, b/w) made at the height of the Cold War and when the hydrogen bomb was relatively new and frightening, was viewed next. This movie demonstrates the concept of deterrence and provides a parody of the President’s advisory system and organizational politics.

Theme #6 Emerging Issues in an Interdependent World

Readings in this section were on democracy, human rights, drugs, and the role of pivotal states. We watched the movie Romero (1989; 102m) that is a biography of the El Salvadoran priest Oscar Arnulfo Romero who was assassinated in 1980 by a right-wing military death squad. The movie focuses upon the last years of Romero’s life, when he became a human-rights activist opposing the rampant violence that existed in his country. Portrayal of US support to the military dictatorship is prominent. Students compared this movie to the current US efforts to support the Colombian government in its fight against drugs and rebels. Human rights as a foreign policy principle was also debated.



Haney and I developed two assessment mechanisms. The first was a pre-survey that “asked students to rate their understanding of the basic issues, actors, and processes that would be covered in the course” (Haney, 2000:6) (Appendix A). Students were requested to define the basic class concepts and terms. This would provide the baseline measure of student’s prior course content knowledge. The survey was redistributed on the last day of class to assess level of content knowledge gained. Haney used the post-survey as a final exam. Since the only graded assignments in my course were four papers and participation, the students gave the post-survey an obligatory “nod,” finishing it very quickly so that they could talk about the movies and eat pizza. Consequently, I found the comparison between the two “tests” not very enlightening, although the students did take the opportunity to give accurate and humorous answers to many questions. Overall, most students were able to give the “correct” answer, although a common error was that students confused the National Security Council (NSC) with the National Security Agency (NSA). My assessment was that they, for the most part, understood the course concepts. But, this was demonstrated more effectively in their written papers where they applied the course concepts to the readings and movies which will be discussed below.

All students rated a positive increase in knowledge about US foreign policy. Comparing their self-assessed knowledge level before and after the class (on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being a little), on average the students judged a positive increase of four points. In their written remarks, all students claimed that they learned a lot, although a few said there was too much information to absorb in three weeks.

A more useful assessment device was student feedback on the course readings and movies. Students were asked to evaluate each class component rating it on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being poor and 10 excellent (Appendix B). This task the students took seriously. Their responses could be categorized into three class orientations.

The first was the “movieholics” (I would count myself in this group) who have a love affair with movies and came to the class with much background knowledge. This group comprised about ten students who were drawn to the class because of the title and their love of movies. The “movieholics” were interested in serious assessment of the qualities of the movies (acting, directing, writing, and content) and how well they fit the themes in the sections. One student criticized the class for not supplying more information on the films before they were shown (citing directors, writers, and more about the movies ’ time period). Many were thrilled that they finally got to view a “classic” film, such as the Manchurian Candidate and Dr. Strangelove . In fact, at the beginning of class, I gave the students the choice of at least three different movies per section (see course syllabus). In all cases, the students preferred the “classic” films. The “movieholics” gave the highest rankings to the movies overall (except for the Missiles of October which, by all accounts, had very bad acting and turned many serious movie goers off). An interesting aside is that this group was split on the Star Trek movie. Those who were Trekies (one student even wrote his evaluation in Klingon translated underneath in English) were favorably disposed to the film. The ones who were not evaluated the movie more harshly. This was also the group that linked the readings and the movies together in the most creative ways.

The three “serious students” were most critical of the movies in the class. From the beginning, these students were dubious about the value of using movies as narratives in class. They were surprised to find out the course used movies as texts because in some registration materials the title simply read “US Foreign Policy.” They wanted what they called a “serious” course on US foreign policy. Their evaluations reflected this desire. They ranked the documentaries the highest, no matter what the quality. They believed that if they were watching a documentary then they must have been learning something. For instance, Post War Hopes, Cold War Fears was highly rated by the “serious students” who commented on its great content. The “movieholics,” on the other hand, thought the film was American centric, long-winded and boring. The “serious students” also like the Missiles of October and Manufacturing Consent because they claimed these movies were based on “facts.” Classic films, like the Manchurian Candidate and the Ugly American, got mediocre reviews (average of “7”). The students did not see their relevance (one even gave Dr. Strangelove a “2”!). They really hated Star Trek . One commented that many of these movies were not worth the time spent and maybe it would be better to just “show clips.” Although critical of many of the films, they were positively disposed to the class.

The last four students were “idiosyncratic.” Their comments did not follow a specific patterned response. Their assessments of the films and readings flowed from personals feeling rather than objective criteria. For instance, one did not like Romero because it was “anti-American.” Another thought that nuclear annihilation was not a laughing matter so they hated Dr. Strangelove. But, beside the odd comment, this group rated the movies positively. An interesting note is that all students loved the documentary Atomic Cafe and gave it a “10”. This film gave the “serious students” their “facts” and the “movieholics” thought it was “well-done,” “artsy” and “spooky.” This film had the ability to speak to all the groups.

My assessment of the course is highly positive. But, throughout the summer I had my concerns. The major one is mirrored by Haney (2000:7) when he states, “There is also a question of how we use our time, and long films bring this right to the fore...films are made with a variety of goals in mind beyond my learning goals for the class.” Haney echoes the concern of the “serious student.” At times when watching the movies I would keep count of the sections of the film that were directly linked to course content. Was the point worth the two hours we spent watching the film? I would then imagine all the points I could have made in lecture during that same time period. For instance, as we approached the third hour of the movie Nixon, I was sweating as much as Anthony Hopkins portraying the soon-to-resign Nixon!

I found that there was definitely a trade-off between the time spent watching a film and the instructor’s ability to cover the course content. For instance, I did not review the readings in much detail. In a traditional course I would have spent a good part of the lecture making sure the students “got it.” In this class I was taking a leap of faith that the students understood and were doing the readings. I remember a particular moment when my faith wavered. The section of the State Department and the Department of Defense is a place where I spend a good deal of class time talking about the institutions. The summer schedule allowed one class period on both institutions and wewatched the Ugly American for half the time. When the movie was over I tried, in the remaining time, to give a week’s lecture. This was a catastrophe; it was one of the worst lectures of my career. After class, students wondered why we didn ’t talk about the movie. One angrily remarked that he would not have read the material if I were going to spoon feed it to them. This was a big surprise for me. Because the students were expected to have done the reading prior to class, and I was not going over the material in class, they made an effort to understand the readings. The may also have worried about following behind in such an intense class. But, I also believe that the paper requirement compelled the students to digest the readings in order to apply the movie they were about to see.

The most rewarding aspect of the class was the excellence of the student papers. They went far beyond what I expected. I believe that the movies inspired students to take creative risks. I did not assign topics, nor did I tell them what movies they had to write on. They chose the topics and did a wonderful job at integrating the material. For instance, one student wrote a one act play entitled “McBucks: or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Frapachino.” Besides poking fun at the movie Dr. Strangelove , this student wrote a cleaver one act play about propaganda using the concepts in Manufacturing Consent, a article about global consumer culture, and ideas of nationalism portrayed in the movie The Ugly American . Another student, writing on the same subject in his paper entitled “Golden Arches or Iron Cages? Capitalism, Rationalism, and Democracy,” united concepts in ways that I never dreamed possible of an undergraduate. Another two students, whose past work I judged as average, improved dramatically.

The movie course broke the typical classroom dynamic where students are socialized to ask, “what do I need for the exam” and the instructor feels constrained by the need “to get through the material for the term.” Both learner and educator took on new roles. Learners became social critics and artists and the instructor was the “guide on the side.” I believe the experimental class in a short session of the summer allowed this transformation to occur.

Much of the reported success of this course is, I believe, due to the student’s eagerness to participate in a “non-traditional” class. Also, the inclusion of non-traditional students added much to class discussion. For instance, non-traditional students led the discussion of the Cold War. It was a sobering fact for many of us that traditional aged college students had no meaningful recollection of the Reagan Era. Being born in the early 1980s, they were prepubescent when the Persian Gulf War was waged. Older students were able to relate personal stories and explain “what all the fuss was about” to the students who could not remember a time when the Russians were not our friends.

A remaining question is whether this class format would work well in a regular semester course. In one of the student’s evaluations, they suggested that a movie shown once a week would have been more desirable. Readers wanting to insert movies in their regular class schedule may find that some of the movies mentioned in this paper will work well. But, I believe that basing a course around films has a particular dynamic. Using movies sporadically would loss this dynamic.

Although my assessment of the movie class is glowing, perspective adopters should be aware of a few of the drawbacks Haney notes. The first is the availability of videos from a university of college resource center or library. This proved problematic in my case given that USM’s resource center had only a few of the videos (the documentaries) I wanted to show. I had to rent the rest, at my own cost, from the local video store. Another potential drawback is that some educational institutions may not have rooms that are configured well to show movies. This was not a problem at USM. The room I was assigned was perfect. It had a stadium seating configuration, a real movie screen, comfortable chairs, air conditioning, and great sound. Students brought their lunches, drinks, and popcorn. I think part of the positive evaluation of this course was the comfort level everyone experienced. The only complaint I had was that although the room was great for viewing films it did not facilitate class discussions since students were not seated face to face. A better option would have been to change rooms after the movie was shown. Next time I will ask for two rooms to be reserved.



I concur with Haney that a community was built in my course unlike those I have experienced in other classes. In addition, students from the summer who are enrolled in my current classes often use movies, the ones we viewed together and others they have seen since, as examples to explain concepts and issues covered in the current class context. They may do this because I often use movies as examples while I lecture. Or, maybe, the experience has changed the way they watch movies and learn about political issues.


Appendix A

POL 374: US Foreign Policy ‘At the Movies’
Summer 1999
Professor Kuzma
Pre-Survey: June 29, 1999

Your name:

  1. On a scale of 1-10 (1 being a little, 10 being a lot), how much do you think you know about American foreign policy?
  2. How many classes have you had in political science, history, etc., in this area?
  3. Define, Identify, and/or give the significance of each of the following items:


Appendix B

The Moment of Truth

Since this is the first time this class has been offered I would really welcome your input on whether you: enjoyed this class format; saw how the movies related to the readings, and felt this class provided a valuable learning experience. Toward this end please comment on the following movies linked with the readings. Rank the items from 1-10 with 1 being poor and 10 excellent. A space is provided for comments. What would you keep? What would you ax? Any other comments on the quality of the class or instruction are welcome.

History and Context of US Foreign Policy

The Cold War

Post Cold War

The Government Framework

The President

Executive Agencies, Department of Defense and Intelligence Community

The State Department and Congress

Coordinating the Players

Media and Public Opinion

Functional Policy Problems

Security in a Changed World

Emerging Issues in an Interdependent World